Last week I went to one of the best exhibitions of this year “Living Lightly”. The organisers showed the music, food, jewellery, clothes, art and living of 15 pastoral communities in India: the sheep nomads from Kashmir and Andhra Pradesh, the camel herders of Gujarat and Rajasthan among them. In that one hour I learnt a great deal about the communities of people and animals that inhabit India. Did you know that there are black sheep in India and nine breeds of camel? The Banni buffalo, the Kankrej cow, the Kacchi goat and the Sindhi horse are simply unique. The government has done absolutely nothing to conserve these animals – in fact, each one of them is simply seen as meat. It is generations of these pastoral communities that have kept our heritage animals alive.
Let me tell you about the Kharai camel. It is almost extinct, as are most camels in India – because the camel communities are now stopping their gypsy way of life and settling down to other professions. They sell these camels to a gang of butchers from the Uttar Pradesh district of Baghpat – each one of whom has over 90 cases on him and is a multimillionaire from killing. This gang comes from one village. They pose as agriculturists and go to camel haats like Pushkar where they flash fake cards, pay the local SDM or the Haat magistrate and take away the camels. These are loaded into trucks, 16 at a time, and then taken to Bangladesh via Kishenganj in Bihar and Malda in West Bengal. I have rescued over 2000 so far, but that is out of 50,000 that are going every year.
Anyway, let me come back to the Kharai camels. They are reared by the Fakirani Jat and Rabari communities. While the Rabaris are still in Kachch, the Fakirani Jats are now on the move and have come to Ahmedabad, Bharuch, Bhavanagar in search of the ever receding mangroves.
Camels are supposed to be the animals of the desert, their broad flat padded feet at home on the hot sand, their ability to do without water, legendary. But this unique breed from the arid lands of Kachchh is equally at home in the desert or ocean. Native to the coastal areas of South Gujarat, close to the mangrove belts, these camels eat saline mangrove plants and swim long distances in the ocean. In the monsoon they travel more than 3 kilometers through the waters to reach the small mangrove islands (called bets) in the creeks along the coast . They stay here for 2-3 months, drinking fresh water from the depressions in the land made by the rain. In summer and winter they swim out to nearer bets to graze, and return every few days to drink fresh water from ponds, wells or cattle troughs. An adult needs about 20-40 litres a day. The hair is smooth, long and soft, which the herders make into rugs and shawls (I saw some at the exhibition – really beautiful). It has a very short chest pad, thin legs, a thin neck, an elegant rounded backside and a short tail. It is either brown white in colour or black.
While the Kharai is less affected by skin disease than the entirely terrestrial breeds, these camels often suffer from arthritis, gastrointestinal problems and trypanosomiasis caused by small protozoan parasites. Government provides no veterinary help, or any kind of preventive care like vaccinations, to the herders. Despite a wealth of traditional knowledge (I also brought a thick book from the exhibition, called Plants Used in Animal Care, compiled by Dr. Nitya S. Ghotge and Dr. Sagari R. Ramdas) the Kharai camel breeders now need professional veterinary help.
The pastoralists need help to continue rearing animals. The first step has been taken by the NGO Sahjeevan who has brought them together to make a Camel Breeders Association. Since their uses as cart pullers and ploughers is almost over, maybe we should look at camel milk to better their lives.
The Kharai breeders are families that have done this for generations. They live very simply along the coast, in houses called Pakkhas made of grasses that need to be rebuilt annually. Most of them are illiterate and their main food is bajra and camel milk. They use their camel wool themselves, since there is no one to help them design and market their products.
A few of them grow bajra, guar phalli and millets on drylands, during the monsoon. Most of them are indebted to moneylenders and pay off their loans by selling young camels. Gujarat is in the process of industrializing its coast and these unnecessary industries, which have come up on land given to them at throwaway prices, often block the grazing routes. The Gujarat forest department is equally stupid in its attitude: chemical industries can throw their acids into the mangroves, but camels are not allowed to graze there in case they eat all the mangroves. But they are no threat as their numbers are so low. So the herders have to feed their camels stealthily, often bribing forest rangers. All this has taken a toll and so the younger generation is leaving for more stable work. Some have shifted to buffalo grazing.
WHAT IT TAKES
If we are going to preserve the Kharai breed, we will have to preserve the mangrove habitat. Not go for misplaced “development” plans like building ports every few thousand yards simply to benefit the construction lobby. We don’t need the ports. We certainly need the camel.
We need to do a few things for the community: give health services for the camels. Establish a market for camel milk and camel wool. Let the camels go into the mangrove grazing grounds easily. Establish a conservation programme for the Kharai camel in partnership with the communities. You can help by buying a camel wool shawl this winter, or by offering to market their products, many of which are truly beautiful – the mojri shoes made of naturally died camels, their embroideries and weaves like ajrakh.
It was only in 2015 that the camel was recognized as a special breed by ICAR. Each camel has been counted by Sahjeevan, and there are only 3,665 kharai camels left and 79 breeders. Quickly learn about them so that you don’t miss this miraculous animal. To get in touch with Sahjeevan contact : 02832-251814 firstname.lastname@example.org
To join the animal welfare movement in India, you may contact email@example.com and her website www.peopleforanimalsindia.org